Four years ago, as long-ensconced regimes were tumbling, first in Tunisia, then in Egypt, followed by Libya, much of the world was expectant of the dawn of a (new) era of good governance, if not also democracy, in the wider Arab world.
Today, commentators are more likely to write of an “Arab Winter” rather than “Spring”. After the heady months of 2011, the past twelve months have come as a shock; having to observe the sudden emergence and rapid gains of Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria.
In recent months, the rest of the world has looked on with horror at the hopelessness of the situation, fearing to learn of the latest territorial gains of IS, bemused by the apparent failure of the world’s great powers to organise any kind of response.
Previously, I have tried to reassure: by confirming that the threat posed by Islamic State should not be made vulnerable to swift (knee-jerk) reactions and that any response would take time to coordinate (in order, ultimately, to be most effective).
Traditional allies such as Jordan have had to be secured, Arabian peninsula monarchies reassured, understandings with the new regime in Cairo no doubt reached, after years of negotiation a deal concluded with Tehran (over its nuclear program), as well as a mutual oversight with both Moscow and Beijing (despite ongoing difficulties in Ukraine, and the South and East China Seas).
Until the past week, one important country was noticeable by its bashfulness: Turkey. Ankara’s attitude towards Islamic State has even been questioned, on account of its longstanding hostility to the Assad regime and fears of Kurdish gains and administrative consolidation along Turkey’s south-eastern border.
Turkey may have given refuge to nearly two million Syrians, but it has long been recognised as the transit point for those wishing to settle (if not also fight) in IS-controlled areas. Only now is it being reported that, after months of negotiations, Washington and Ankara have reached an agreement on the establishment of a “safe zone” within northern Syria.
The aim is to drive Islamic State out of a 68-mile long area west of the Euphrates River (on the border with Turkey, going about 40 miles deep into Syria), in part to benefit rebels opposed to President Assad’s regime (rebels currently cementing their control of the north-west of the country). In return, Ankara has agreed to allow armed US aircraft to fly out of its base at Incirlik.
This also being accompanied by Turkish air strikes in northern Syria and Iraq. In recent years, Ankara has managed to establish good relations with Kurdish groups in northern Iraq. Equivalent relations are yet to be secured with Kurdish groups in northern Syria.
Their advances, coupled with the recent electoral success of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and suicide bombing on July 20, in the south-eastern Turkish town of Suruc, have threatened to re-ignite the Kurdish question within Turkey’s borders, thus rendering agreement with Washington all the more urgent.
Turkish airstrikes in Syria have included strikes against PKK militants. This Tuesday, at a meeting of all of NATO’s 28 member countries in Brussels, the alliance expressed “strong solidarity” with Turkey.
However, it was reported that members used the closed-door meeting to urge Turkey not to use excessive force (against Kurdish militants), and to continue peace talks with representatives of its Kurdish minority.
The last thing Washington and its other allies need right now is for a new conflict to emerge (between Ankara and Kurdish groups).
Ankara will exercise its right to maintain peace and security within, but will be anxious not to jeopardise good correspondence with Kurdish groups many years in the making; with the aim of establishing, in the medium term, good correspondence with Kurdish groups in northern Syria.
Thus, despite earlier fears among commentators, a plan for Syria is beginning to emerge: the suffocation and eventual snuffing out of Islamic State from the country, occasioned with an expansion of the territory held by moderate Syrian rebel groups and consolidation in Kurdish populated areas; leading, in the future, to negotiations for the removal of President Assad from power and transition to a new multi-party governmental framework in the country.
With such understandings and objectives already enshrined in Iraq, Syria was always going to be the harder country to stabilise, but it is quite possible, when this period of the Arab world’s history is written, that these past few days just may be among a few singled out as being the key moments in the eventual demise of Islamic State.
Dr Tim Potier is Head of the School of Law at UCLan Cyprus